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THE SIN OF ISRAEL AND ATONEMENT OF PHINEHAS (Numbers 25:1-18).
Abode in Shittim. For a considerable time; from their first arrival in the Arboth Moab until the crossing of the Jordan. Shittim is the shortened form of Abel-Shittim, "Field of Acacias" (Numbers 33:49). It seems to have been the northernmost part of the last encampment of Israel on that side Jordan, and the head-quarters of the host (Joshua 2:1; Joshua 3:1). Began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. This commencement of sin seems to have been made by Israel without special provocation. The very victories won, and the comparative ease and affluence now enjoyed, after long marches and hardships, may well have predisposed them to this sin, for which they now for the first time found abundant opportunity.
And they called, i.e; the women of Moab, encouraged to do so by the licentious intercourse which had sprung up. Without such encouragement it is difficult to suppose that they would have ventured on such a step. And the people did eat. Gluttony added its seductions to lust. No doubt this generation were as weary of the manna and as eager for other and heavier food as their fathers had been (see on Numbers 11:4; Numbers 21:5).
Israel joined himself unto Baal-Peor. This is a technical phrase, repeated in Numbers 25:5, and quoted in Psalms 106:28, expressing the quasi-sacramental union into which they entered with the heathen deity by partaking of his sacrificial meats and by sharing in his impure rites (cf. Hosea 9:10 and the argument of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-33). There can be little doubt that Peor (פְּעוֹר, from פָעַר, to open) has the sense of aperiens, in usu obsceno, and that it was the distinguishing name of Baal or Chemosh when worshipped as the god of reproduction with the abominable rites proper to this cultus. For a notice of the same thing in the last days of Israel see Hosea 4:14, and for the practice of Babylonian and (to some degree) Egyptian women, see Herodotus, 1.199; 2.60). The Septuagint has here ἐτελέσθη τῷ Βεελφεγώρ, "was consecrated," or "initiated," unto Baal-Peor, which admirably expressed the sense.
The Lord said unto Moses. It seems strange that so fearful an apostasy had gone so far without interference on the part of Moses. He may have been absent from the camp on account of the wars with the Amorite kings; or he may have trusted to the chiefs to see that due order and discipline was maintained in the camps. Take all the heads of the people, i.e; the chiefs, who ought to have prevented, and might have prevented, this monstrous irregularity, but who seem, if we may judge from the case of Zimri, to have countenanced it. The mere neglect of duty in so gross a case was reason enough for summary execution. Hang them up before the Lord. Either by way of impalement or by way of crucifixion, both of which were familiar modes of punishment. In this case the guilty persons were probably slain first, and exposed afterwards. The hanging up was not ordered on account of its cruelty, nor merely for the sake of publicity ("against the sun ), but in order to show that the victims were devoted to the wrath of God against sin (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23; 2 Samuel 21:2-6). The Septuagint has here παραδειγμάτισον αὐτούς. Cf. Hebrews 6:6, where this word is coupled with "crucify." Them is no authority for referring the "them" (אוֹתָם) to the guilty persons instead of to the heads of the people, as is done by the Targums and by many commentators.
The judges of Israel. אֶל־שֹׁפְטֵי. This is the first place where "the judges" are mentioned by this name (cf. Deuteronomy 1:16; Judges 2:16), but the verb is freely used in Exodus 18:1-27, in describing the functions of the officers appointed at Sinai. Every one his men. The men who were under his particular jurisdiction. This command given by Moses is not to be confounded with the previous command given to Moses to hang up all the chiefs. Moses only could deal with the chief, but it was within the power and the province of the judges to deal with ordinary offenders. It does not, however, appear how far either of these commands was put in practice.
A Midianitish woman. Rather, "the Midianitish woman." אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִית. Septuagint, τὴν Μαδιανίτην. The writer deals with an incident only too notorious, and which by the peculiar aggravation of its circumstances had fixed itself deeply in the popular memory. This is the first mention of the Midianites in connection with this affair, and it prepares us to learn without surprise that they were in reality the authors of this mischief. All the congregation,… who were weeping. According to the loose sense in which this expression is used throughout the Pentateuch, it evidently means that those who truly represented the nation, not only as a political, but also as a religions community, were gathered in this distress before the presence of their invisible King. They wept on account of the wrath of God provoked; probably also on account of the wrath of God already gone forth in the form of a pestilence.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar. See on Exodus 6:25. He seems to have been the only son of Eleazar, and his natural successor in the office of high priest.
Into the tent. אֶל־הַקֻּבָּה. Septuagint, εἰς τὴν κάμινον. The word signifies an arched recess (cf. the Arabic "alcove," from the same root, and the Latin fornix), and means probably the inner division which served as the women's room in the larger tents of the wealthier Israelites. There is no sufficient ground for supposing that a special place had been erected for this evil purpose; if it had been, it would surely have been destroyed. Through her belly. אֶל־קָבָתָהּ. Septuagint, διὰ τῆς μήτρας αὐτῆς. So the plague was stayed. No plague has been mentioned, but the narrative evidently deals with an episode the details of which were very fresh in the memory of all, and is extremely concise. That a plague would follow such an apostasy might be certainly expected from the previous experiences at Kibroth-hattaavah, at Kadesh, and after the rebellion of Korah.
Were twenty and four thousand. "Fell in one day three and twenty thousand," says St. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:8). As the Septuagint does not deviate here from the Hebrew, the Apostle must have followed some Rabbinical tradition. It is possible enough that the odd thousand died on some other day than the one of which he speaks, or they may have died by the hands of the judges, and not by the plague.
The Lord spake unto Moses, saying. On the Divine commendation here bestowed upon the act of Phinehas see the note at the end of the chapter. In the Hebrew Bible a new section begins here.
While he was zealous for my sake. Rather, "while he was zealous with my zeal". In my jealousy. Rather, "in my zeal;" the same word is used.
Now the name of the Israelite. These details as to names seem to have been added as an after-thought, for they would naturally have been given in Numbers 25:11, where the man and the woman are first mentioned. The woman's name is given again in Numbers 25:18, as if for the first time. We may probably conclude that Numbers 25:14, Numbers 25:15 were inserted into the narrative either by the hand of Moses himself at a later date, or possibly by some subsequent hand. Zimri. This was not an uncommon name, but the individual who bears it here is not elsewhere mentioned.
Head over a people, and of a chief house in Midian. Rather, "head of tribes (אֻמּוֹת, for the use of which cf. Genesis 25:16) of a father's house in Midian." It seems to mean that several clans descended from one tribe-father looked up to Zur as their head. In Numbers 31:8 he is called one of the five "kings" of Midian. That the daughter of such a man should have been selected, and should have been willing, to play such a part throws a strong light upon the studied character and the peculiar danger of the seduction.
Vex the Midianites. The Moabites, although the evil began with them, were passed over; perhaps because they were still protected by the Divine injunction (Deuteronomy 2:9) not to meddle with them; more probably because their sin had not the same studied and deliberate character as the sin of the Midianites. We may think of the women of Moab as merely indulging their individual passions after their wonted manner, but of the women of Midian as employed by their rulers, on the advice of Balsam, in a deliberate plot to entangle the Israelites in heathen rites and heathen sins which would alienate from them the favour of God.
NOTE ON THE ZEAL OF PHINEHAS
The act of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, in slaying Zimri and Cozbi is one of the most memorable in the Old Testament; not so much, however, in itself, as in the commendation bestowed upon it by God. It is unquestionably surprising at first sight that an act of unauthorized zeal, which might so readily be made (as indeed it was made) the excuse for deeds of murderous fanaticism, should be commended in the strongest terms by the Almighty; that an act of summary vengeance, which we find it somewhat hard to justify on moral grounds, should be made in a peculiar sense and in a special degree the pattern of the great atonement wrought by the Saviour of mankind; but this aspect of the deed in the eyes of God by its very unexpectedness draws our attention to it, and obliges us to consider wherein its distinctive religious character and excellence lay.
It is necessary in the first place to point out that the act of Phinehas did really receive stronger testimony from God than any other act done proprio motu in the Old Testament. What he did was not done officially (for he held no office), nor was it clone by command (for the offenders were not under his jurisdiction as judge), nor in fulfillment of any revealed law or duty (for no blame would have attached to him if he had let it alone), and yet it had the same effect in staying the plague as the act of Aaron when he stood between the living and the dead with the hallowed fire in his hand (see on Numbers 16:46-48). Of both it is said that "he made an atonement for the people," and so far they both appear as having power with God to turn away his wrath and stay his avenging hand. But the atonement made by Aaron was official, for he was the anointed high priest, and, being made with incense from the sanctuary, it was mate in accordance with and upon the strength of a ceremonial law laid down by God whereby he had bound himself to exercise his Divine right of pardon. The act of Phinehas, on the contrary, had no legal or ritual value; there is no power of atonement in the blood of sinners, nor had the death of 24,000 guilty people had any effect in turning away the wrath of God from them that survived. It remains, therefore, a startling truth that the deed of Phinehas is the only act neither official nor commanded, but originating in the impulses of the actor himself, to which the power of atoning for sin is ascribed in the Old Testament: for although in 2 Samuel 21:3 David speaks of making an atonement by giving up seven of Saul's sons, it is evident from the context that the "atonement" was made to the Gibeonites, and not directly to the Lord. Again, the act of Phinehas merited the highest reward from God, a reward which was promised to him in the most absolute terms. Because he had clone this thing he should have God's covenant of peace, he and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. This promise must mean that he and his seed should have power with God for ever to make peace between heaven and earth, and to make reconciliation for the sins of the people; and, meaning this, it is a republication in favour of Phinehas, and in more absolute terms, of the covenant made with Levi as represented by Aaron (see on Malachi 2:4, Malachi 2:5). Nor is this all. In Psalms 106:31 it is said of his deed that "it was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations forevermore." This word "counted" or "imputed'' is the same (חָשַׁב) which is used of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, and the very words of the Septuagint here (ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην) are applied to the obedience of Abraham in James 2:23. It appears then that righteousness was imputed to Phinehas, as to the father of the faithful, with this distinction, that to Phinehas it was imputed as an everlasting righteousness, which is not said of Abraham. Now if we compare the two, it must be evident that the act of Phinehas was not, like Abraham's, an act of self-sacrificing obedience, nor in any special sense an act of faith. While both acted under the sense of duty, the following of duty in Abraham's case put the greatest possible strain upon all the natural impulses of mind and heart; in the case of Phinehas it altogether coincided with the impulses of his own will. If faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness, it is clear that zeal was imputed to Phinehas for righteousness for evermore.
This being so, it is necessary in the second place to point out that the act in question (like that of Abraham in sacrificing his son) was distinctly one of moral virtue according to the standard then Divinely allowed. An act which was in itself wrong, or of doubtful rectitude, could not form the ground for such praise and promise, even supposing that they really looked far beyond the act itself. Now it is clear
(1) that under no circumstances would a similar act be justifiable now;
(2) that no precedent could be established by it then.
The Jews indeed feigned a "zealot-right," examples of which they saw (amongst others) in the act of Samuel slaying Agag (1 Samuel 15:33), of Mattathias slaying the idolatrous Jew and the king's commissioner (1 Macc 2:24-26), of the Sanhedrim slaying St. Stephen. But the last-mentioned case is evidence enough that in the absence of distinct Divine guidance zeal is sure to degenerate into fanaticism, or rather that it is impossible to distinguish zeal from fanaticism. Every such act must of necessity stand upon its own merits, for it can only be justified by the coexistence of two conditions which are alike beyond human certainty:
(1) that the deed is itself in accordance with the will of God;
(2) that the doing of it is inspired by motives, absolutely pure.
That Christ came to save men's lives, and that God would have all men to repent, has made for us the primary condition impossible, and therefore the act of Phinehas would be immoral now. No one may take life unless he has the mandate of the State for doing' so. But it was not so then; God was the King of Israel, and the foes of Israel were the foes of God, with whom there could be no peace or amity as long as they threatened the very existence of God's people and worship. The Israelite who indulged in sinful intercourse with a heathen was a rebel against his King and a traitor to his country; he became ipso facto an "outlaw," to slay whom was the bounden duty of every true patriot. If it be said that this view of things belongs to an inferior code of morality, which ignored the universal brotherhood of men and Fatherhood of God, that is admitted at once. The elder revelation founded itself plainly and avowedly upon the moral law as then universally held (and by no means supplanted yet by the higher law of Christ), that men were to love their brethren and hate their enemies. To complain that the act of Phinehas was moral in a Jewish and not in a Christian sense is only to find fault with God for suffering a confessedly imperfect and preparatory morality to do its work until the fullness of time was come.
While, therefore, we recognize the act of Phinehas as one determined, in its outward form, by the imperfect morality of the dispensation under which he lived, it is necessary to look below the act to the spirit which animated it for its permanent value and significance. That spirit is clearly defined by the testimony of God—"while he was zealous with my zeal." The excellence of Phinehas was, that he was filled with a zeal which was itself Divine against sin, and that he acted fearlessly and promptly (whilst others apparently hesitated even when commanded) under the impulse of that zeal; in other words, what pleased God so greatly was to see his own hatred of sin, and his own desire to make it to cease, reflected in the mind and expressed in the deed of one who acted upon righteous impulse, not under any command or constraint.
It is impossible, in the third place, not to see that this record throws a flood of light upon the doctrine of the atonement; for the act of Phinehas stands, in some respects, upon a higher level than all the types and shadows of the cross which had gone before; being neither an act of submission to a definite command, like the sacrifice of Isaac, nor a piece of ordered ritual, like the sending forth of the goat for Azazel; but a spontaneous deed, having a moral value of its own. Partly at least for the sake of what it was, not merely what it showed in a figure, it was accepted as an atonement for the sin of Israel (which was very gross), and was imputed to its author for an everlasting righteousness. Phinehas, therefore, in one very important sense, would seem to bear a stronger resemblance to our Lord in his atoning work than any other person in the Old Testament. It may therefore be submitted that we must seek the truest ground of the atonement wrought by Christ not in the simple fact of the passion and death of the God-man, nor in the greatness or value of his sufferings as such; but in that zeal for God, that Divine indignation against sin as the opposite of God, that consuming desire to cause it to cease, which first animated the life of the Redeemer, and then informed his death. Phinehas in his measure, and according to his lights, was governed by the same Spirit, and surrendered himself to the prompting of the same Spirit, by which Christ offered himself without spot unto God. And that Spirit was the Spirit of a consuming zeal, wherein our Lord hastened with an entire eagerness of purpose (Luke 12:50; John 2:17; John 12:27, John 12:28, &c.) to "condemn sin in the flesh" and so to glorify God, and to accomplish the object of his mission (Romans 8:3), not by the summary execution of individual sinners, but after an infinitely higher fashion, by the sacrifice of himself as the representative of the whole sinful race.
Lastly, it must be noted that as the act of Phinehas enables us, almost more than anything else, to enter into the nature of our Lord's atonement, so it is only in the light of that atonement that we can justify to ourselves either the strength of the Divine commendation accorded to Phinehas, or the vastness of the promises made to him. For the deed was after all an act of violence, and a dangerous precedent, humanly speaking; and, on the other hand, the covenant of peace given to him and to his seed, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, failed to give any peace at all, save in a very broken and partial manner, and did not even continue in the keeping of his family. As the house of Eleazar was the elder of the two descended from Aaron, it would have been only natural that the high priestly dignity should remain with its members; as a fact, however, it passed to the house of Ithamar from the days of Eli until Solomon, for political reasons, deposed Abiathar in favour of Zadok; and it was lost for ever with the final fall of Jerusalem. As in so many cases, therefore, we have to acknowledge that the act of Phinehas was accepted as an atonement for the sake of that truer atonement which (in a remarkable sense) it anticipated; and that the promises given to Phinehas were only partially intended and partially fulfilled for him, while the true and eternal fulfillment was reserved for him of whom Phinehas was a figure. To Christ, in whom was combined an entire zeal against sin and an entire love for the sinner, was indeed given God's covenant of peace and an everlasting priesthood.
SIN, ZEAL, AND ATONEMENT
We have in this chapter the sin of man and the righteousness of God set before us in the most striking light; the virulence of the one, and the triumph of the other through the zeal of God's servant. We may contemplate here—
I. The seductions of the flesh and of the devil, and the apostasy to which they lead;
II. The insolence of sin when allowed to gain a head;
III. The zeal against sin which pleases God and obtains favour;
IV. In a figure, the atonement wrought by God's holy servant Jesus.
I. Consider, therefore, with respect to THE APOSTASY OF ISRAEL—
1. That it was due to two things—their own licentiousness, and the craft of Balaam taking advantage of it. They knew not indeed that Balaam had any part in it, but we know that the instigation came from him. Even so there is the same double origination of all grave fallings away from God and grace. A man is drawn away of his own lust (James 1:14), and enticed by the lust of the flesh and of the eyes (1 John 2:16); but beneath and behind all these temptations is the craft of an evil will counter-working the grace and purpose of God (Ephesians 6:11, Ephesians 6:16; 1 Peter 5:8). And note that Balsam could not harm them by his curses or magical practices, but only by taking advantage of their evil concupiscence. So has our adversary no power against us, save through our own sins.
2. That the sin of Israel began with idleness, and the reaction from toil and victory, which encouraged them to give the rein to wandering desires. Even so the most dangerous moments, morally speaking, in a Christian's life are those intervals of comparative inactivity and apparent safety when dangers seem to be surmounted, foes overcome, and toils left behind.
3. That the danger of Israel against which they had been so strongly warned now beset them, viz; the danger of too friendly intercourse with people whose religion and morality were altogether inferior to that of Israel. Even so the great and constant danger of Christian people—especially of such as mix much with others—lies in intercourse with a world which does not acknowledge the laws of God, and in the almost inevitable lowering of the moral and religious tone which follows.
4. That the first fatal step was indulgence in carnal pleasures—an indulgence such as was now for the first time thrown in their way. And this is still the frequent source of apostasy; a snare into which the most unlikely persons constantly fall when it is suddenly presented to them. How many of the greatest, intellectually, and most promising, spiritually, have fallen through lust! how many deem themselves absolutely above it simply because the temptation has never yet come in their way!
5. That fellowship in sin led directly to fellowship in idolatry: the two things being mutually intermixed in the abominations of those days. Even so it is impossible to take part in the sinful indulgences of the flesh and of the world without denying God and committing treason against him. Immorality is not simply evil in the sight of God, it is an outrage upon him, and a direct renunciation of our allegiance to him. The first Christians rightly regarded Venus and Bacchus as devils. Fleshly sin involves a quasi-sacramental union with the enemy of God (1 Corinthians 6:13-20; 1Co 10:21, 1 Corinthians 10:22; and cf. Psalms 73:27; Acts 15:20; 1 Timothy 5:11).
6. That the wrath of God burnt especially against the heads of the people, because they had permitted these iniquities to go on, and had perhaps encouraged them. Even so their sin is greatest and their punishment will be sorest who fail to use their position and authority to discourage vice; much more if they countenance it by their example.
7. That the sentence of death was pronounced upon all who were joined to Baal-Peor. It is not the will of God that sin as such should now be punished by the magistrate, but none the less is the sentence of eternal death gone forth against all who through sinful indulgence have made themselves over to the prince of this world (Romans 1:18, Romans 1:32; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 5:5; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 21:8).
8. That the judges of Israel were commanded to execute judgment, not indiscriminately, but each upon such as he was responsible for. Even so is every Christian held bound to extirpate by all needful violence his own sins and sinful inclinations which cleave unto iniquity and do dishonour to God. For each one of us is responsible for all that is within him, and not for others, save by example and admonition (Romans 8:13; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 6:5; Ephesians 5:11; Colossians 3:5, where "mortify" is simply "put to death").
II. Consider again, with respect to THE SIN OF ZIMBI—
1. That the bad example and negligence of the chiefs went further in encouraging this evil than the declared wrath of God in discouraging it. It would have been impossible for such a thing to have occurred if the leaders of Israel had been doing their duty. Even so in a society nominally Christian the bad example of its leaders has much more effect than all the denunciations of Scripture. Nothing is more remarkable than the extreme insolence with which the worst vices are ever ready to assert themselves, and to flaunt their vileness in the face of day, if they find encouragement, or even toleration, with those that lead opinion and set the fashion. Worse sins than that of Zimri, such as adultery, and murder (in the form of duelling), have been and are practiced without shame and without rebuke by those who claim the name and privilege of Christians.
2. That the rank of the two offenders no doubt increased their presumptions, as shielding them from punishment. Even so in the Churches of Christ it has ever been the rich and the great who have dragged down the moral law and outraged the holiness of their calling, because they seemed to be beyond the reach of discipline or correction in this world.
3. That their sin was intensified by contrast with the penitential sorrow and the trouble all around them. Even so does the reckless sin of abandoned people assume a darker hue in the sight of God and of good men, because it shows itself side by side with all the sorrow and the pain, the penitence and supplication, which that very sin has worked in unnumbered souls. There is not a city in Christendom where that scene of sin and weeping in the camp of Israel is not ever being reproduced in full sight of God, if not of men.
4. That the sin of Zimri was, and is, revolting to everybody, not, however, because it was really worse than numberless other such acts, but only because it asserted itself in its naked hideousness. Even so the most revolting crimes which all men cry out upon are not really worse than those which are committed every day; it is only that circumstances have robbed them of the disguises and concealments beneath which men hide their ordinary sins.
III. Consider again, with respect to THE ZEAL OF PHINEHAS—
1. That it was well-pleasing in the sight of God because it was a zeal for God, and against sin. Even such must be the character of all true religious zeal; it must have no lesser or meaner inspiring motive than the pure desire that God may be glorified and sin may be destroyed. It is this zeal, and nothing else, which puts the creature at once on the side of the Creator, and produces an active harmony of will and purpose between God and man. How little religious zeal has this pure character! Hence, although it achieves much,—builds churches, wins converts, gains all its ends on earth,—yet it does not obtain any commendation or reward from God.
2. That it stood in strong contrast to the supineness of the chiefs, and even apparently of Moses; they (at best) only mourned, Phinehas acted. True zeal is always rare, and most rare in high places. It is so much easier to deplore the existence of evils than to throw oneself into active contention against them. The enthusiasms and reforms which have purged the Church of its grosser moral corruptions have never come from its leaders.
3. That it was all the more acceptable with God because it was spontaneous, and not official. Even so the zeal which pleases God is that which is not paid for directly or indirect]y, and which is not prompted by any human expectations, and does not wait for any advantages of position. How often do men tacitly agree to leave zeal for religion and morality to their official exponents, as if it were a professional matter to seek the glory of God and the triumph of righteousness!
4. That it merited the favour of Heaven because it was unhesitating and unabashed. No one else perhaps would have "followed" when and where Phinehas followed. Even so a genuine religious zeal does not hesitate to seek its ends by painful courses, and such as natural feeling and ordinary sentiment shrinks from. Zeal knows no shame except the shame of doing wrong or of suffering wrong to be done if it can be helped.
5. That the act of Phinehas was commended because it was
(1) according to the will of God, and
(2) inspired by zeal for God unmixed with lower motives.
According to the law of Israel, as then understood and sanctioned by God, it was right that these sinners should die, and right that any private person in Israel should execute judgment upon them if the rulers hesitated; and Phinehas had no private ends to gain or malice to gratify by what he did. Even such is the ultimate test of every act of religious zeal, by which it must be weighed in the last account. If a thing be right in itself, according to the revealed will of God, yet if it be done from any motive but the highest, it has no reward hereafter, because it seeks its reward here.
6. That the act of Phinehas was one which was right then, but would be wrong now, because the present dispensation is built upon eternal, not upon temporal, sanctions. Yet is his zeal and ours all one in its essence: we must put to death the deeds of the flesh by the arms of righteousness; every man must be a Phinehas to his own lusts in act—to others in word and example only (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:11).
IV. Consider lastly, with respect to PHINEHAS AS A FIGURE OF CHRIST IN HIS ATONEMENT—
1. That the act of Phinehas teas accepted as an atonement because it was inspired by a pure zeal for God and against sin, without regard of self. And this was the moral element, the controlling motive power, in the life and death of Christ, which made it infinitely precious in the eyes of God, and infinitely available for the remission of sins.
2. That God had sought for such an atonement before and it had not been given. And God had looked in vain among the children of men for any that should have perfect sympathy with his own hatred of sin, and perfect self-devotion in seeking to destroy it (cf. Isaiah 53:11, "my righteous servant;" Isaiah 63:4, Isaiah 63:5; Matthew 3:17, &c.).
3. That Phinehas "satisfied" the wrath of God against sin, inasmuch as he gave expression in the most open and public way to the real mind of God in respect of sin. And our Lord did not merely regard sin with the eyes of God, but he manifested unto all the world in the very highest sense the righteousness of God as arrayed against the sinfulness of sin. Beholding the carcasses of those sinners, Israel awoke from his evil dream to a consciousness of what such lust really was. Gazing upon the dead face of him that was made sin for us, we realize what the hatefulness and hideousness of sin truly is.
4. That Phinehas condemned sin in the flesh by the death—since nothing less would suffice—of the sinners. And God condemned sin in the flesh not by inflicting death, but by sending his only-begotten to suffer death in the name and in the place of that sinful race with which he had wholly identified himself.
5. That Phinehas, having displayed and vindicated the righteousness of God, delivered the rest of Israel from the plague. Even so our Lord, having condemned sin by his own death, through death destroyed the power of death, and delivered his brethren from the fear of death.
6. That Phinehas received for his zeal God's covenant of peace, and the promise of an everlasting priesthood. And our Lord, for that he made atonement for the sins of the world, and reconciled in one life and death the holiness and the love of God, became himself our peace (Ephesians 2:14), and was made a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedec (Hebrews 5:9, Hebrews 5:10).
7. That Phinehas could not abide because of death, nor his seed because of infirmity and change; wherefore the premise could not be permanently made good to him. But Christ abideth for ever, for ever the same, eternal inheritor of all the promises made to all holy men (Hebrews 7:24; Hebrews 13:8, &c.). See the note above.
HOMILIES BY E.S. PROUT
A TERRIBLE ATONEMENT
We see in this narrative—
I. THE NATION WHICH GOD HAD BLESSED, CURSED THROUGH ITS OWN SINS. The Israelites, impregnable against the curses of Balaam, succumb to his wiles. We discover parts of a plot. In the foreground are women (true daughters of Eve the tempter), alluring feasts, flatteries, idolatries. In the background we discern the malignant face of the covetous Balaam (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14), and behind him his master the devil. Learn to discriminate the seen and unseen agents of temptation (Ephesians 6:12), and to guard against the devices of our diabolical foe (2 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 11:14, 2 Corinthians 11:15). Sin did what Balaam could not do. The wrath of God, the plague on the thousands of Israelites, the execution of the ringleaders, follow in quick succession. Note the destructiveness of sin. Of every sinner it may be said as of Achan, "That man perished not alone in his iniquity." The guilt of the nation reached its climax in the shamelessness and audacity of the sin of Zimri. While shame, one of the precious relies of paradise, survives, there is more hope of restoration, but when shame is gone, sin is ripe for judgment (Jeremiah 5:7-9; Jeremiah 6:15). If God's wrath had continued to burn, the whole nation must have perished.
II. THE WRATH REMOVED BY A TERRIBLE ATONEMENT.
1. The essence of it was not an outward act, but a state of heart. It was Phinehas' zeal for God which made the act possible and acceptable. Just so in the atonement, of a very different character, made by the Lord Jesus Christ, the essence of it was the zeal for the will of God which prompted the obedience unto death, the offering of the body of Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:5-10).
2. The form of the atonement was a terrible manifestation of the righteousness of God in the prompt punishment of the two audacious transgressors. They expiated their crime by their lives. Phinehas' conduct, being inspired by godly zeal, is justified by God himself. Instead of being treated as a crime, it is regarded as a covering over of the nation's sin. Where that sin reached its climax, there it received such sudden retribution as to stamp it as an abominable thing which God hates. Zimri and his paramour are branded with eternal infamy, while Phinehas is rewarded by "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood." We learn thus that there is more than one way of making an atonement to God. In both cases it is by the manifestation of the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21, Romans 3:25), but in different ways.
1. By his holy wrath flaming forth against sin, whether immediately (e.g; Joshua 7:11, Joshua 7:12) or through the zeal of a man of God. The weeping of the people was not an atonement, for it did not manifest the righteousness of God as the act of Phinehas did.
2. By his righteous grace allowing another to interpose on behalf of sinners, to do or to suffer whatever God sees needful for a manifestation of his righteousness in the covering over of sin. Thus Moses (Exodus 32:30-33) and Paul (Romans 9:3) were willing to have made atonement, if possible. Thus the sinless Son of God did atone (Romans 3:21-26), and sin is covered not by the destruction of the sinner, but by the righteous pardon of penitents trusting the atonement of Christ.—P.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
MOAB FINDS A MORE EFFECTIVE WEAPON
In spite of all his efforts and confident expectations, Balak fails in bringing' down Jehovah's curse on Israel. But what cannot be accomplished in the way Balak proposes now gives fair promise of being speedily accomplished in another way. While Israel abode in Shittim the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.
I. ISRAEL, FULLY AWARE OF SOME DANGERS, IS EQUALLY REGARDLESS OF MUCH GREATER ONES. Israel having been refused passage through Edom, and having also had to fight its way through the strong opposing forces of Sihon and Og, came at last into the plains of Moab, doubtless expecting a similar conflict with Balak. While he was looking for Israel to attack him, Israel would be wondering why he left it unmolested. And while Balak is waiting for the expected curse, Moab puts on a peaceful, harmless appearance. What was more natural than that Israel should enter into neighbourly intercourse? The nearness of the two peoples gave every facility for this. There must also have been a great charm in seeing fresh faces and hearing unaccustomed voices. As day followed day without any signs of hostility, Israelite and Moabite would mingle more freely together. If Balak had followed the example of Sihon and Og, it would have been far better for Israel. The worst enemies are those who, on their first approach, put on the smiling face and give the salutation of peace. We know what to do with the open enemy, who bears his hostility in his countenance; but what shall we do with him who comes insidiously, to degrade, corrupt, and utterly pervert the life within; and this by a very slow process, of which the victim at the beginning must not be conscious at all, and indeed as little conscious as possible until it is too late for escape? Puritanism, so much condemned, laughed at, and satirized, is really the only safety of God's people. Go with the courage which he inspires into any den of lions, into any physical peril whatsoever, remembering what Jesus has said: "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it" (Luke 17:33); but refrain with equal courage from everything that is mere pleasure, mere comfort of the flesh, for in doing so you may keep clear from some temptations in a world which is crowded with them. Remember that to go in the way of one temptation is to go in the way of more than one, perhaps of many. Israel got conversing with the daughters of Moab, and this led to whoredom, which assuredly was bad enough; but worse remained, for whoredom led on to idolatry, and idolatry to the manifested wrath of God. The devil was delighted when he saw the sons of Israel, God's own chosen and beloved race, of whom such glorious things had been spoken in prophecy, in abominable intercourse with the daughters of Moab; still more delighted when he saw the bowings to Moab's gods; and his delight was crowned when 24,000 died in the plague. One cannot enter a grocer's shop now-a-days without noticing how many things are hermetically sealed, in order to be kept free from taint. The very smallest crevice would be fatal. We cannot indeed be hermetically sealed—that would be to go out of the world, arid Christ's prayer is, not that we should be taken from the world, but kept from the wicked one. But surely we shall not be slow in seconding Christ's prayer and effort with our prayer and effort. We must live in this world as knowing how corruptible we are, and that ceaseless vigilance is the price of spiritual safety.
II. BALAK, FULLY PERSUADED OF THE POWER OF ONE WEAPON, IS UTTERLY UNCONSCIOUS OF THE GREATER POWER OF ANOTHER. Balak, sending all this long way for Balaam, was utterly ignorant of a resource lying close at hand, which probably began to operate even while his negotiations with Balaam were in progress. The world is not conscious of its greatest resources against the Church; it does its greatest damage unwittingly. Balaam certainly seems to have had something to do with bringing out to its full extent this power of the daughters of Moab (Numbers 31:16), but it must have been already in action, revealing to him something of the disposition of the Israelites, before he guessed what could be done with it towards utterly destroying them. The world inflicts much spiritual mischief simply by doing its own things in its own way—pursuing, with energy and vivacity, its godless, mammon-worshipping, pleasure-loving path, and thus drawing towards it God's people, never sufficiently heedful of their steps, never sufficiently looking away from the world to Jesus. It is in the resources which the world does not consider that we are to look for the greatest dangers. Balak was simply counting the fighting men of Moab; the women he considered of no consequence. The world, it would seem, is given to despise its own weak ones as much as it despises the weak ones of the Church. God takes weak ones to do his work, but he takes them consciously, deliberately, and with well-ascertained ends, serviceable to the good of his people and the glory of his name. The world also has weak ones to do its work, but it knows not all they do or can do. The lustful daughters of Moab were more dangerous than a corps of Amazons, for they led Israel into idolatry, and that was even worse than if Israel's prime and strength had been stretched dead on some bloody field. Women have done untold and peculiar service in the Church; and what they have done is but a small part of their possible service, if they would only all waken to their powers and opportunities, and if they were only allowed to make full proof of them. The ill that these daughters of Moab did is the measure of the great good that truly Christian women may accomplish. Notice that all the daughters of Moab were not as these mentioned here. There was one daughter of Moab, not so many generations after, of a very different spirit—Ruth, the great-grandmother of David.—Y.
ZEAL FOR GOD: THE RESULT AND REWARD OF IT
I. ZEAL FOR GOD.
1. The occasion on which it was shown. The people were passing through great suffering, as is evident from the mention of the weeping crowd before the tabernacle, and the great number who perished in the plague (Numbers 25:9)—a number much exceeding that in the great visitation of wrath after the rebellion of Korah. God himself had sentenced the leaders of the people to a peculiar and shameful death. The people had sinned, it would seem, even beyond their usual transgressions, and now they are being smitten in a way utterly to terrify and abase them. Yet Zimri, a man of high rank in Israel, and Cozbi, a woman of corresponding rank among her own people, choose this moment to commit a most audacious and shameless act in the presence of weeping Israel.
2. The person who showed this zeal. Phinehas, son of Eleazar the priest, and the man who in due time would become priest himself. He might have said, "Is it laid on me more than on any one else to become executioner of Heaven's wrath on this daring couple?" or, "Doubtless the Lord will signify his will concerning them." But holy indignation becomes his guide, and he rightly judges that this is an instance of presumptuous sin deserving immediate and terrible retribution. He shows here the true spirit of the servant of God in an office such as that for which he was in training. Those who had to do with the tabernacle as closely as the Aaronic family thereby professed to be nearer God than others. And if their service was anything more than a hollow form, then when the honour of Jehovah was peculiarly in question it was to be expected that his true servants would be correspondingly indignant. What would be thought of an ambassador who should listen cool, unmoved, and unresenting to the greatest insults upon the nation from which he had come? The act of Phinehas was not that of a common Israelite; there was not merely indignation because of Zimri's callous indifference to the sufferings and sorrows of his brethren; he was zealous for the Lord. It was daring, shameless sin which provoked his wrath; it was as if he looked to heaven in going forth and said, "Against thee, thee only have they sinned." To be easily tolerant in the presence of great sins shows a heart far from right towards God. Mere cynical observations on the frailties and eccentricities of fallen human nature do not fall with good grace from the lips of the Christian, however much they may consist with the conduct of a man of the world.
3. The way in which the zeal was shown. A violent and extreme measure certainly, but we are not allowed to judge it. God has taken judgment out of our hands by unmistakably indicating his approval. We must. distinguish between the spirit of the act and the outward mode of its commission. If the spirit and essence of the act be right, then the mode is a secondary matter. The mode largely depends on the times. Criminals were punished in England only a few centuries ago in ways which would not be tolerated now. What is wanted is that we should emulate the zeal of Phinehas without imitating the expression of it. One might almost say, better run a javelin through sinners than have that easy-going toleration for sins which some show who call themselves godly. If God is worth serving at all, he is worth serving with zeal. Zeal according to knowledge must be as free from mock-charity and humility on the one hand as from bigotry on the other. The more men there are in the Church of the stamp of Phinehas the better. There are even harder things to be done now-a-days than to thrust javelins through shameless fornicators. It needs a pure and fervent zeal to take one s stand with the few, or even alone, against all sorts of worldly principles and practices prevailing in what ought to be God's kingdom through Christ Jesus. When Paul withstood Peter to the face because he was to be blamed, he did something quite as hard as if he had run a javelin through him.
II. THE RESULT. The plague was stayed. A strange difference in method, is it not, from that adopted on the occasion when Moses commanded Aaron to take the censer and stand in the midst of the congregation, making atonement for them? (Numbers 16:46). Why was not something of this sort done now? Did Moses feel that it would be of no use, or was his tongue mysteriously stayed from the command? It is plain that Jehovah felt his honour was seriously in question. The people had actually bowed before idols. The chosen race is disintegrating within sight of the promised land. The patriotism of the theocracy is dead. The shout of a king (Numbers 23:21) is not met by the answering shout of confiding and grateful subjects. They have utterly forgotten that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). Stay I there is one man at least, and he, be it marked, in the priestly succession, who does show an adequate jealousy against these idols, so suddenly and ungratefully exalted over against Jehovah. It is the act of only one man; but the act of one man rightly moved, full of holy indignation, energy, and heroism, is enough to stem Jehovah's wrath. Mark, it is not said that Phinehas did this in order to stop the plague. The narrative is evidently intended to convey the impression that what he did was in holy indignation at the slight put upon Jehovah. But a righteous action is never wanting in good results. The zeal of Phinehas for Jehovah stood as an atonement for the monstrous disobedience of Israel.
III. THE REWARD. The result was in itself a reward. To a man of the stamp of Phinehas it must surely have been no small joy to see the plague stayed. May we not presume that even the leaders escaped their doom, as in a most comprehensive amnesty? But there is a specified reward beside. Phinehas has shown his fitness to wear Aaron's robes; nay, in a sense he has worn them, seeing he has made atonement. The real reward for every one faithful to his present opportunity is to enlarge his opportunity and give him more and higher service. He who has the joy of faithfulness in present and perhaps humble duties cannot have a greater joy than that of faithfulness in all of larger and more conspicuous service that may come before him. Our Lord himself, being zealous for his Father on earth (which the formal and professed custodians of the Divine honour were not), cleansing his Father's house from profane and even unrighteous uses, was advanced to still higher service in the glorious opportunities belonging to a place at God's right hand. Among men there is lamentable waste, humiliating and ridiculous failure, because men are so seldom proportioned to the offices they fill. The fit man in the great multitude of instances does not seem to get his chance. But in God's service every one really gets his chance. Phinehas got his chance here. Everything depended on himself. The act was the outcome of his honest, fiery, devoted, godly heart. He had not to go to his father or to Moses, saying, "Think you I should do this thing?" If there is zeal in us, occasion will not be lacking. Phinehas had been required to show the zeal of the destroyer, and it proved to be also the zeal of the preserver. We have to be zealous for a God who is not only righteous and holy, and jealous of rivalry from any other god whatsoever, but also loving, and who desires not the death of a sinner. The zeal that can do nothing but protest, denounce, and destroy, God will never approve or reward. The becoming, fruitful, and praiseworthy zeal under the gospel is that which, following in the train of Paul, is all things to all men in order to save some.—Y.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 25". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/